Tag Archives: LIFE Magazine

8 September 1954

Albert Scott Crossfield, NACA Test Pilot. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Albert Scott Crossfield, NACA Test Pilot. (Allan Grant/LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

8 September 1954: Scott Crossfield, a NACA Aeronautical Research Pilot at the High Speed Flight Station, Edwards Air Force Base, California, took the North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre, 52-5778, on its first NACA test flight—and his first flight in an F-100.

Tests of the prototype and early production Super Sabres revealed directional stability problems, a very dangerous inertia coupling characteristic that could cause the aircraft to go violently out of control (and which would result in the death of North American’s chief test pilot, George Welch, in just another three weeks). The highly swept wings could stall at high angles of attack, causing the airplane to pitch up in the deadly “Sabre dance”. NACA wanted to explore the causes of these aerodynamic problems and design solutions.

Scott Crossfield pre-flights a North American Aviation F-100A Super Sabre. Note the extended leading-edge "slats". (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.)
Scott Crossfield pre-flights a North American Aviation F-100A Super Sabre. Note the extended leading-edge “slats”. (Allan Grant/LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas.)

During the flight there was an engine fire warning and Crossfield shut down the Pratt & Whitney J57-P-7 turbojet engine. The F-100A had no flaps and North American’s own test pilots did not think a “dead stick” landing was possible due the very high landing speed required.

Scott Crossfield signs the maintenance forms for an F-100, certifying the airplane ready for flight. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Scott Crossfield signs the maintenance forms for an F-100, certifying the airplane ready for flight. (Allan Grant/LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

Scott Crossfield tells the story in his autobiography:

. . . As a matter of fact, North American tests pilots were then flipping coins to see who would bring an F-100 in dead-stick to fulfill a requirement of the Air Force acceptance tests. I was not concerned. Dead-stick landings in low L-over-D [Lift-over-Drag] airplanes were my specialty. Every test pilot develops a strong point. I was certain that my talent lay in dead-stick landings.

With the engine idling and generating no energy to the plane’s systems, I was running out of hydraulic pressure to operate the controls. Following the handbook instructions, I pulled a lever which extended a miniature “windmill” into the slipstream. This “windmill” churned, building up pressure in the hydraulic lines. Unknown to me, there was a major leak in the line. The windmill was not helping, but hurting me. It was pumping hydraulic fluid overboard as fast as it could turn.

Scott Crossfield climbs into the cockpit of a North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Scott Crossfield climbs into the cockpit of a North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre. (Allan Grant/LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)

I called Edwards tower and declared an emergency. All airborne planes in the vicinity of the base were warned away from the lake area. I held the ailing F-100 on course, dropping swiftly, following the glide path that I used for the dead-stick Skyrocket. [Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket] I flared out and touched down smoothly. It was one of the best landings I have ever made, in fact. Seconds later, while the F-100 was rolling out, the remaining bit of hydraulic pressure in the control lines drained out and the controls froze.

I then proceeded to violate a cardinal rule of aviation: never try tricks with a compromised airplane. The F-100 was still rolling at a fast clip, coming up fast on the NACA ramp, when I made my poor decision. I had already achieved the exceptional, now I would end it with a flourish, a spectacular wind-up. I would snake the stricken F-100 right up the ramp and bring it to a stop immediately in front of the NACA hangar. This trick, which I had performed so often in the Skyrocket, was a fine touch. After the first successful dead-stick landing in an F-100, it would be fitting.

Instrument panel of a North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre. (U.S. Air Force)
Instrument panel of a North American Aviation F-100 Super Sabre. The fire warning light and hydraulic pressure gauge are at the upper right corner. (U.S. Air Force)

According to the F-100 handbook, the hydraulic brake system—a separate hydraulic system from the controls—was good for three “cycles,” engine out. This means three pumps on the brake, and that proved exactly right. The F-100 was moving at about fifteen miles an hour when I turned up the ramp. I hit the brakes once, twice, three times. The plane slowed, but not quite enough. I was still inching ahead ponderously, like a diesel locomotive. I hit the brakes a fourth time—and my foot went clear to the floorboards. The hydraulic fluid was exhausted. The F-100 rolled on, straight between the yawning hangar doors!

The good Lord was watching over me—partially anyhow. The NACA hangar was then crowded with expensive research tools—the Skyrocket, all the X-1 series, the X-3, X-4 and X-5. Yet somehow, my plane, refusing to halt, squeezed by them all and bored steadily on toward the side wall of the hangar.


The nose of the F-100 crunched through the corrugated aluminum, punching out an eight-inch steel I-beam. I was lucky. Had the nose bopped three feet to the left or right, the results could have been catastrophic. Hitting to the right, I would have set off the hangar fire-deluge system, flooding the hangar with 50,000 barrels of water and ruining all the expensive airplanes. Hitting to the left, I would have dislodged a 25-ton hangar-door counterweight, bringing it down on the F-100 cockpit, and doubtless ruining Crossfield.

Chuck Yeager never let me forget the incident. He drew many laughs at congregations of pilots by opening his talk: “Well, the sonic wall was mine. The hangar wall was Crossfield’s.” That’s the way it was at Edwards. Hero one minute, bum the next. That I was the first pilot to land an F-100 dead-stick successfully, and memorized elaborate and complete instrument data on the engine failure besides, was soon forgotten.

The F-100 is a tough bird. Within a month NACA’s plane was flying again, with Crossfield back at the helm. In the next few weeks I flew forty-five grueling flights in the airplane, pushing it to the limits, precisely defining the roll coupling. (On one flight the coupling was so severe that it cracked a vertebra in my neck.) These data confirmed, in actual flight, the need for a new F-100 tail, which North American was planning to install on later models of the airplane.

Every night after landing, I taxied the F-100 slowly to the NACA ramp. At the bottom, placed there on orders of Walt Williams, there was a large new sign, symbolic of the new atmosphere at Edwards. It said:

PLEASE COME TO A COMPLETE STOP BEFORE TAXIING UP RAMP 

Always Another Dawn, The Story Of A Rocket Test Pilot, by A. Scott Crossfield with Clay Blair, Jr., The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1960. Chapter 20 at Pages 196–199.

North American F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 1959. It had been repaired and returned to service after running through the NACA hangar wall at Edwards AFB, 8 September 1954. In 1960, FW-778 was retired to Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778 parked on Rogers Dry Lake, 1959. It had been repaired and returned to service after running through the NACA hangar wall at Edwards AFB, 8 September 1954. In 1960, FW-778 was retired to Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, AZ. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778 parked on the ramp in front of the NACA hangar, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1959. (NASA)
North American Aviation F-100A-5-NA Super Sabre 52-5778 parked on the ramp in front of the NACA hangar, Edwards Air Force Base, California, 1959. (NASA)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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3 August 1962

Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, is greeted by his 7-year-old son, Gary, after his record-setting flight into space. “Boy, that was a ride.” (LIFE Magazine)

3 August 1962: Following his record-setting flight into space aboard an X-15 hypersonic research rocketplane, 17 July 1962, Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, was featured with a cover photograph on the LIFE Magazine issue for the week of 3 August 1962. LIFE was the most prestigious news magazine of its time.

This was the first time that a manned aircraft had gone higher than 300,000 feet (91,440 meters). It was also the first flight above 50 miles (80.47 kilometers). For that achievement, Bob White became the first X-15 pilot to be awarded U.S. Air Force astronaut wings. His 314,750-foot altitude (95,936 meters) also established a Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) world altitude record, which will probably never be broken. To qualify, a new record would have to exceed White’s altitude by at least 3%, or more than 324,419 feet (98,882.9 meters). As the FAI-recognized boundary of Space is the Kármán line (100 kilometers, or 328,083.99 feet), any prospective challenger would have to hit a very narrow band of the atmosphere.

Command Pilot Astronaut insignia, United States Air Force
Command Pilot Astronaut insignia, United States Air Force

Major White had been the first pilot to fly faster than Mach 4, Mach 5 and Mach 6. He was the first to fly over 200,000 feet (60,960 meters), then over 300,000 feet (91,440 meters). He was a graduate of the Air Force Experimental Test Pilot School and flew tests of many aircraft at Edwards before entering the X-15 program. He made at total of sixteen X-15 flights.

In this photograph, Lt. Robert M. White is on the right, with Lt. F. Mark Johnson (left) and Major Lee G. Mendenhall, all of the 354th Fighter Squadron, 355th Fighter Group. (Little Friends)
In this photograph, Lieutenant Robert M. White is on the right, with Lieutenant F. Mark Johnson (left) and Major Lee G. Mendenhall (center), all of the 354th Fighter Squadron, 355th Fighter Group. Lieutenant Johnson’s fighter, Sweet “Dosey” II, is a North American Aviation P-51D-10-NA Mustang, 44-14089. (Little Friends)

A P-51 Mustang fighter pilot in World War II, Bob White was shot down on his 52nd combat mission in February 1945 and captured. He was held as a prisoner of war until the war in Europe came to an end in April 1945. White was recalled to active duty during the Korean War and was assigned to a fighter squadron stationed in Japan. Later, he flew 70 combat missions over North Vietnam in the Republic F-105 Thunderchief supersonic fighter bomber, including leading the attack against the Paul Doumer Bridge at Hanoi, 11 August 1967, for which he was awarded the Air Force Cross.

Colonel Robert M. White, United States Air Force, Deputy Commander for Operations, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Takhli RTAFB, 1967, with other Republic F-105 Thunderchief pilots. Colonel White is the third from the left. (U.S. Air Force)
Colonel Robert M. White, United States Air Force, Deputy Commander for Operations, 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Takhli RTAFB, 1967, with other Republic F-105 Thunderchief pilots. Colonel White is the third from the left. (U.S. Air Force)

Colonel White next went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where he was director of the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle systems program. He then returned to Edwards Air Force Base, California, as commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center. White was promoted to Major General in 1975.

General White retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1981. He died 17 March 2010.

Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, with a North American Aviation X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake, 1961. (NASA)
Major Robert M. White, U.S. Air Force, with a North American Aviation X-15 on Rogers Dry Lake, 1961. (NASA)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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22 December 1954

Captain Richard James Harer, United States Air Force. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)
Captain Richard James Harer, United States Air Force. (Photograph courtesy of Neil Corbett, Test and Research Pilots, Flight Test Engineers)

22 December 1954: At Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of southern California, test pilot Captain Richard James Harer was flying a Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire, serial number 50-962.¹ Harer was accompanied by fellow test pilot Captain Milburn G. Apt in a chase plane.

Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-966, the same type airplane flown by Captain Richard Harer, 22 December 1954, is accompanied by Lockheed F-80C-1-LO Shooting Star 47-176 chase plane. (Lockheed)
Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-966, an all-weather interceptor of the same type flown by Captain Richard J. Harer, 22 December 1954. The Starfire is accompanied by a Lockheed F-80C-1-LO Shooting Star chase plane, 47-176. (Lockheed Martin)

The Lockheed F-94 was the first U.S. production fighter aircraft to be equipped with a drag chute to provide aerodynamic braking on landing. (Drag chutes had been in use on larger aircraft since the 1930s.) There was speculation that the sudden deceleration provided by a drag chute might be useful during air-to-air combat.

Captain Harer’s test flight was to determine what would happen when the drag chute opened while the airplane was traveling at 600 miles per hour (96 kilometers per hour).

In this scene from the motion picture "Toward The Unknown" (Toluca Productions, 1956) which starred William Holden and Lloyd Nolan in a story about test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, a Lockheed F-94C Starfire has released a drag chute in flight, simulating Captain Richard Harer's test flight of 22, December 1954.
In this scene from the motion picture “Toward The Unknown” (Toluca Productions, 1956) which starred William Holden and Lloyd Nolan in a story about test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, a Lockheed F-94C Starfire has released a drag chute in flight, simulating Captain Richard J. Harer’s test flight of 22 December 1954. (Warner Brothers)

 LIFE Magazine described the test in the following excerpt:

LIFE Magazine, 18 June 1956. . . A captain named Richard J. Harer was assigned to make the test in an F-94C, capable of flying 600 miles an hour. The plane was equipped with a manual release, so Harer could get rid of the parachute after the test. In the event that the manual release failed, Harer could get rid of the parachute by detonating a small explosive charge which was wired to the rope that secured the parachute to the plane. If both of these devices failed, Harer could still get rid of the parachute by going into a dive and maneuvering the parachute into the blast of flame from his afterburner. In sum, a thoughtful arrangement of affairs. Harer got into his plane and took it up to 20,000 feet, closely followed by a chase aircraft flown by another captain named Milburn Apt. Harer opened the parachute, began to tumble crazily across the sky and then—as far as anyone knows—must have tried the manual release. It failed. Then, because he was a cool, skillful pilot, Harer must have kept his head and tried the explosive charge, although no one is sure what he did. In any case, the charge did not explode. By this time Harer was plummeting out of control toward the dry lake bed at perhaps 500 miles an hour, with Captain Apt flying right beside him shouting advice over the radio. Harer’s plane continued down, wallowing, gyrating, the deadly parachute never quite getting into the flame of the afterburner. Harer crashed. His plane burst into flames.

Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-1041 deploys its drogue chute on touchdown. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-1041 deploys its drag chute on touchdown. (U.S. Air Force)

Captain Apt landed on the lake bed at almost the instant of the crash. The two planes, one burning, one under control, skidded along beside each other. As soon as he came to a halt, Apt leaped out of his plane and ran over to Harer’s. “It was nothing but fire,” Apt remembers. “The only part of the plane I could see sticking out of the flames was the tip of the tail.”

Apt dashed around to the other side of Harer’s plane. Strangely, this side was not burning. Apt was able to climb up onto the plane and look through the Plexiglas canopy into the cockpit. It was filled with smoke, but he could see Harer inside, feebly, faintly moving his head. Apt grabbed the canopy release, a device on the outside of the plane designed for just such and emergency. It failed.

Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-1034 with its drogue chute deployed for aerodynamic braking on landing. (U.S. Air Force)
Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire 50-1034 with its drag chute deployed for aerodynamic braking on landing. (U.S. Air Force)

The dry lake bed has absolutely nothing on its surface except the fine-grained sand of which it is composed. No sticks, no stones, nothing that Apt might have picked up to smash the canopy. He tried to pry it off with his bare hands, an effort that, had it not been for the circumstances, would have been ludicrous. He smashed it with his fists and succeeded only in injuring himself. Meanwhile he could see Harer inside, the fire beginning to get to him now.

Captain Richard J. Harer's Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire, 50-962. The airplane has an air data boom mounted on teh nose for flight testing, and carries jettisonable fuel tanks under its wings. (U.S. Air Force photograph via Million Monkey Theatre)
Captain Richard J. Harer’s Lockheed F-94C-1-LO Starfire, 50-962. The airplane has an air data boom mounted on the nose for flight testing, and carries jettisonable fuel tanks under its wings. (U.S. Air Force photograph via Million Monkey Theater)

As Captain Apt smashed his fists on the canopy, a single jeep raced across the lake bed toward the plane at 70 miles an hour. Reaching the plane, the driver leaped out and ran over to it, carrying the only useful piece of equipment he had: a five-pound brass fire extinguisher, the size of a rolling pin. He could as well have tried to put out the fire by spitting on it. Apt and the jeep driver shouted contradictory instructions at each other above the growing roar of the fire. The jeep driver emptied his extinguisher on the forward part of the plane, then handed the empty container to Apt. Apt raised it above his head and smashed it down on the canopy. It bounced off. He pounded the canopy again and again, as hard as he could, and each time the extinguisher bounced off. “It was like hitting a big spring,” he says forlornly. “I couldn’t break it.”

Meanwhile, 9,950 men on the base quietly pursued their jobs, unaware of the accident. The obstetrician said, “Come back Thursday, Mrs. Smith,” Robert Hawn worked on his YAPS, and Smith, Douglas S., changed a tire. The only immediate spectators, aside from Apt and the jeep driver, were the Joshua trees growing all along the edge of the lake bed, very old and mournful.

By this time Captain Harer’s flesh was on fire. The jeep driver dashed back to his vehicle and returned with a five-gallon gasoline can. “My God.” Apt thought. “No, no,” the jeep driver cried, “it’s full of water. It’s all right.”

Apt hefted the can, which weighed nearly 50 pounds. He raised it high in the air and smashed it down. The canopy cracked. Apt hit it again, opening a hole in it, letting out the smoke inside. In a few seconds he had broken a large jagged opening through which Harer could be pulled out. “It was a tough job,” Apt says. “Harer was a very tall man.” Was a tall man. Not is, but was.

“He’s not tall now,” Apt says. “Both his feet were burned off.” Captain Harer lived. Today, he gets around very well on his artificial feet. He has been promoted to major and will soon be honorably retired from the Air Force with a pension. He has no memory whatever of the accident. He recalls flying at 20,000 feet and popping open the parachute, and his next memory is of awakening in a hospital two weeks later. . . .

Excerpted from “10,000 Men to a Plane,” LIFE Magazine, 18 June 1956.

Captain Milburn Grant Apt, United States Air Force, with a Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star. (LIFE Magazine)
Captain Milburn Grant Apt, United States Air Force, with a Lockheed T-33A Shooting Star at Edwards Air Force Base, 1956. (LIFE Magazine via Jet Pilot Overseas)
Soldier's Medal
The Soldier’s Medal

For his heroism in the face of great danger, Captain Mel Apt was awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the highest award for valor in a non-combat mission for Army and Air Force personnel.  The regulation establishing the award states, “The performance must have involved personal hazard or danger and the voluntary risk of life under conditions not involving conflict with an armed enemy. Awards will not be made solely on the basis of having saved a life.”

Mel Apt would continue as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base, and on 26 September 1956, he would be the first pilot to exceed Mach 3 when he flew the Bell X-2 rocketplane to Mach 3.196 (2,094 miles per hour/3,377 kilometers per hour) at 65,589 feet (19,992 meters). Just seconds later, the X-2 began uncontrolled oscillations and came apart. Mel Apt was unable to escape from the cockpit and was killed when the X-2 hit the desert floor. He was the thirteenth test pilot to be killed at Edwards since 1950.

¹ Several sources list the U.S. Air Force serial number of the F-94C flown by Captain Harer as “50-692,” however that serial number is actually assigned to a Boeing C-97C-35-BO Stratofreighter four-engine medical transport. It is apparent that the numbers have been transposed.

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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